Superbia Spotlights: It’s A Sin... Manchester’s Unique HIV & AIDS Legacy

Social media was set ablaze on Friday 22nd January when - finally, Russell T Davies’ new drama, It’s A Sin, hit our screens.

By Manchester's Finest | 9 February 2021

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The much-anticipated Channel 4 drama series takes place during the early years of the AIDS crisis in London and has unanimously been declared a ‘masterpiece’ by both viewers and critics alike.

In August 2020, Russell was interviewed by It’s A Sin star – actor, writer, theatre-maker and activist Nathaniel J. Hall for Superbia Sunday, as part of Alternative Manchester Pride Festival. At the time of the interview It’s A Sin was under the working title ‘Boys’.

The show chronicles the lives of five 18-year-olds who move to London in 1981, only to find themselves at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, from its origins and as it ripped through Britain. The show has sparked thousands of conversations about the legacy of HIV and AIDS in the UK, and the advancements that have since come to fruition rendering HIV a manageable condition.

Thanks to these advances, people who are living with HIV can go on to live happy and healthy lives.

While many LGBTQ+ charities and organisations have been pushing these messages for years, It’s A Sin has further opened dialogue around the importance of testing to know your status.

Early diagnosis and treatment ensure that a person living with HIV can begin to take medication. Taking this medication ensures that HIV cannot be passed on to sexual partners. This is known as the scientific fact Undetectable = Untransmittable, or U=U.

In terms of prevention, PrEP can be taken by HIV-negative people. Taking PrEP correctly virtually eliminates the risk of acquiring HIV. It was announced that PrEP would be available for free in England from April 2020.

While the show itself centers around the AIDS crisis in London, Greater Manchester has its own unique legacy with the epidemic, which we chronicle below for LGBT History Month.

UK AIDS Memorial Quilt Trail at HOME

The city has always been at the forefront of promoting the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the UK for decades and it continues to be the home of one of the largest LGBTQ+ communities in the UK, and of course, one of the biggest celebrations of LGBTQ+ life, Manchester Pride Festival which takes place across the city every August Bank Holiday Weekend.

Superbia, Manchester Pride’s year-round programme of arts and culture has funded, supported and platformed many arts and culture initiatives that centre around the AIDS epidemic, and people living with HIV today.

Just last month, ‘To Whom It May Concern‘ was supported by Superbia, commissioned with generous funding from the Arts Council. The multi-platform arts project by artist Jordan Roberts gives space to Manchester activists, educators and artists to reflect on HIV.

To Whom It May Concern from Nathaniel Hall on Vimeo.

The Beginning…

It was 1980 when the first reports of an unidentifiable illness began to emerge from the United States. Patients were experiencing immune collapse, followed by rapid health deterioration and, finally, death. The virus was originally named GRID (Gay-Related Immune Disorder).

The British tabloids callously refered to it as the ‘gay plague’.

In 1982 Terrence Higgins was the first British gay man to be diagnosed with and die of an AIDS-related illness. Following his death, his friend Martyn Butler, partner Rupert Whitaker and close friends set up the Terry Higgins Trust.

The charity, which was later renamed the Terrence Higgins Trust, remains a leading sexual health and HIV charity dedicated to promoting awareness of and preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS to this day.

Legislation & ‘Section 28’

In 1985, Conservative Minister for Health Ken Clarke enacted powers to keep people with AIDS in hospital against their will. The only known case of these powers being used is in Manchester when the council held an emergency meeting granting an order to keep a gay man being treated for AIDS in Monsall Hospital for three weeks, after he had asked to go home for the weekend.

The order sparked major protests. Following a court case, the order was lifted and he was allowed to leave hospital 10 days later.

That same year, six gay activists set up AIDS-line – a voluntary helpline – in Bloom Street in Manchester. As the cause gathered support from the council (with the formation of an AIDS working party) and finance from the North Western Regional Health Authority, the helpline evolved to become George House Trust and Body Positive North West. It was officially relaunched in the 1990s, when it relocated to Ardwick.

Chief Constable James Anderton described drug addicts, sex workers and gay people as ‘swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making’ at a seminar organised by GMP in 1986 to discuss how to deal with AIDS victims. Despite widespread condemnation, particularly from the media, he kept his post.

The Conservative Government introduced ‘Section 28’, forbidding the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools and local authorities in 1988. The act disallowed the promotion of services for homosexuals and was the first anti-gay legislation for over 100 years.

The Fight Back

With LGBTQ+ people already struggling to cope with the AIDS epidemic, it was a heartless attempt to repress the community. However, on February 20th 1988, 20,000 people marched through the streets of Manchester to protest against Section 28. This event is seen as a pivotal moment in the city’s LGBT+ history. The legislation was finally repealed in 2003.

Activists from the Section 28 protests formed Manchester’s faction of ACT UP, a chapter of the direct action movement started in New York in 1987.

ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, used direct action to raise awareness of HIV and to challenge the government on its inaction and pharmaceutical companies for their greed. In one example, ACT UP members stuffed tennis balls with condoms and threw them over the walls of Strangeways prison in protest at the government’s refusal to distribute condoms in prisons.

In 1994 campaigners from Manchester set up Healthy Gay Manchester which was dedicated to improving the sexual health of men who have sex with men.

Healthy Gay Manchester launched a free condom and lube distribution scheme in Greater Manchester that became a model for the rest of the country. HGM eventually formed a partnership merged Manchester’s Lesbian and Gay Switchboard to become the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, which is now known as the LGBT Foundation. Manchester Pride has funded the condom and lube packs for over 25 years.

A groundbreaking combination of multiple antiretroviral drugs became the standard treatment for HIV in 1996. The treatment has been highly successful and meant the progression from HIV to AIDS is increasingly rare, thereby drastically reducing the death rate.

A Beacon of Hope

The Beacon of Hope was unveiled in 1997 in Sackville Gardens in the Gay Village to commemorate all those who have died of AIDS-related illness. The first Tree of Life was planted on World Aids Day in 1993.

Since then it has become a focal point for floral tributes and quiet contemplation. The tree is linked to the Beacon of Hope by three large plinths, creating ‘a metaphorical journey through life’. A stainless steel column rises from the Beacon, decorated with engraved hearts. Some are pierced to represent the fragility of life and to allow light to pass through.

A Normal Life…

In January 2008, the Swiss National AIDS Commission issued a statement for doctors in Switzerland about the safety of HIV treatment to reduce transmission. In 2011, the HPTN-052 study reported that ART dramatically reduced the risk of HIV transmission in sero-different heterosexual couples.

The study was so effective that it was stopped early so all participants could use ART. In 2019, the results from the PARTNER2 study were published in the Lancet. These included additional results in gay men, still confirming that transmissions didn’t ovvure with undetectable viral load – this is the scientific fact of U=U.

Today, The Candlelit Vigil is the culmination of the Manchester Pride Festival, and each year it closes the four days of the festival with a moment of reflection in Sackville Gardens. The home of Alan Turing, The National Transgender Memorial and the Beacon of Hope, the gardens are transformed into a sea of flickering candles as the party calms and comes to an end.

Attendees take a minute to remember those lost to HIV as LGBTQ+ people join together to fight the epidemic worldwide, and the stigma that still exists.


Superbia is Manchester Pride’s year-round programme of arts and culture, designed to support, curate, fund and promote LGBTQ+ events throughout Greater Manchester.